Fracking extracts gas by opening up fissures in shale rock. It also opens up a great many cans of worms. Wednesday’s chaotic deferral by Lancashire County Council of its decision on whether to permit the energy firm Cuadrilla to open a new UK fracking operation at Little Plumpton shows the complexity of the debate.
Opponents continue to press concerns about the potential environmental pitfalls, citing evidence of increased earth tremors at US fracking sites, as well as raising the possibility of water contamination. None of those anxieties ought to be taken lightly, which is why strict regulation of any future fracking fields is vital.
Critical voices also note that the recent low price of oil poses questions about the economics of extracting gas from shale, where profit margins are far tighter. The US fracking boom has cooled appreciably in the past six months as investors take fright.
Nevertheless, the global price of oil will not stay at rock bottom for ever. And Britain, still overly reliant on burning coal for its energy, must keep its options open, especially at a time when geopolitical stability precludes long-term reliance on foreign imports.
Fracking, for all that it requires close monitoring, should not be off limits indefinitely. Not only does it produce, in natural gas, a preferable alternative to coal, but new operations will create much-needed employment. The Prime Minister has previously argued that tapping shale for gas could bring up to 74,000 jobs and £3bn of investment. That may be optimistic, but it gives an indication of what is at stake.
Even so, no solution that relies on fossil fuels alone is a long-term answer to our energy needs, let alone global environmental pressures. So while Cuadrilla may succeed at Little Plumpton, the Government must continue to support research into renewable alternatives.